A recent Xcel Energy announcement that it achieved a company record emissions reduction last year yielded conflicting responses from Boulder residents on the value of the city’s municipal utility effort in light of the company’s continued progress. There was an insinuation that the investor-owned utility “is heading in the right direction and making the city’s takeover effort obsolete.”
I would like to set the record straight about the intentions of public utilities, which are community-owned, not-for-profit electric utilities that safely provide reliable, low-cost electricity to more than 49 million Americans while protecting the environment. Homes and businesses in 2,000 communities across the United States — large cities like Austin, Nashville, Los Angeles, and Seattle, as well as small towns and the Navajo nation — get electricity from a public power utility.
Public utilities distinguish themselves by being nonprofit, community-owned, locally controlled, affordable, reliable, invested in their communities, and environmentally responsible, and they open up a healthy energy market. Here are some facts you may find surprising:
- One in seven Americans are served by a public power utility: more than 2,000 communities — in 49 states and five U.S. territories — have a public power utility.
- As a whole, public utilities have lower rates than other types of electric utilities: public utilities pay 13% less than customers of investor-owned utilities.
- Public utilities also deliver more reliable electrical service: 74 minutes a year downtime, compared to 136 minutes.
- 10% of the electricity generated in the U.S. is from public power facilities.
- In 2017, public utilities powered more than 40% using non-carbon emitting sources.
- Public power supports strong local economies: Public utilities generate more than $58 billion in annual revenue and invest more than $2 billion annually directly back into the community. Public utilities invest this revenue back into their communities through payments in lieu of taxes, providing hometown jobs, offering free or reduced-cost electric services, supporting local causes and charities.
- Public utilities employs 93,000 people in hometown jobs.
Municipalized cities have a more natural path to 100% renewable. Of the six communities (from Burlington, Vermont, to Kodiak, Alaska) to reach the 100% renewable electricity target, five of them, including Aspen, are municipal utilities. The sixth is a rural electric cooperative. It isn’t surprising that municipal utilities have taken the lead, said Elizabeth Doris, manager of NREL’s state and local policy and technical assistance project: “Municipal utilities own the resources. They are used to making tactical decisions.” Public ownership gives Longmont and Fort Collins, two of the 10 Colorado communities that have taken the 100% pledge, the best chances of meeting the goal, Doris said. Boulder and Pueblo, which are considering municipal utilities, also hope to be powered by all renewable energy.
There are 29 municipally-owned utilities in Colorado: Boulder and Pueblo would make this 31. The 29 are Aspen, Burlington, Center, Colorado Springs, Delta, Estes Park, Fleming, Fort Collins, Fort Morgan, Fountain, Frederick, Glenwood Springs, Granada, Gunnison, Haxtun, Holly, Holyoke, Julesburg, La Junta, Lamar, Las Animas, Longmont, Loveland, Lyons, Oak Creek, Springfield, Trinidad, Wray and Yuma. Please note our neighbors Estes Park, Fort Collins, Fort Morgan, Frederick, Longmont, Loveland and Lyons
Not only can inter-operability be done, but it has been accomplished here in Boulder. Boulder Hydro already demonstrates what a public utility co-existing with an investor-owned utility looks like, and it has been in operation since 1904. Little known, our hydro capacity contributes, according to 2014 figures: total nameplate generating capacity around 16 megawatts, total hydro revenue of around $2.4 million, total generation of about 52,015 megawatt-hours, and annual generation supplying about 5,200 homes. Our hydro is using existing municipal water supply facilities — no new dams or transmission lines while fulfilling Xcel Energy and Tri-State Power sales contracts. If you visit the Boulder Hydro site at the mouth of Boulder Canyon, you will see how municipal and investor-owned utility entities have already demonstrated cooperative engineered inter-operations.
We are suggesting taking this successful working model to the city scale. We are not re-inventing the wheel here, why wouldn’t we invest wisely in our legacy to the future?
— David Takahashi lives in Boulder.
Published March 28, 2020 in the Daily Camera